As is the case so often in life, we begin to think about people and events that took place what seems like an eternity ago.
Today, I came across a magazine edition of Slammed, a periodical dedicated to the restaurant industry. No longer in print, I picked up this old, ragged copy with my first mentor, Kevin Zraly, on the cover. For a wine professional to call Kevin Zraly a mentor is pretty commonplace as he is the author of one of the great wine primers ever written, Windows on the World Wine Course. He has impacted many, many people in and out of the wine scene, and I am blessed to have had the honor to work with him.
I flipped to the end of the magazine where the editor had asked me to write a letter to Kevin. The piece is titled Love Letter, and as the magazine is no longer around, I thought I would share it with those who may have never had the chance to read it.
Once upon a time, in a world that was so bright and sunny and so high, I met Kevin Zraly, wine educator extraordinaire. It was on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center, and I was in the liquor room mopping up red wine.
I heard a voice coming from the door of the room saying, “Aren’t you glad you went to college for this?” I looked up from the floor to find Mr. Zraly watching me. I was shaking I was so excited. I had just gotten the job as an assistant cellar master at Windows on the World, and I had not yet met this man whom I had read so much about.
That same evening, for the first time, I was able to attend Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School. It was heavenly. Listening to him speak about wine was an experience like no other, and I truly believed I had found the niche I had been searching for. Everything I had read became true that night–not only was he an educator, but he was an entertainer as well.
The wine class continued for eight weeks. Every Monday night, I would attend and listen to this passionate teacher share his knowledge of wine and its many mysteries. I took notes, I tasted, I asked questions, I laughed and I loved. What a beautiful life I was having.
Kevin spoke of cool climate versus hot climate; wine textures relating to skim milk, whole milk and heavy cream; how to taste flavors in 60 seconds; the villages of Burgundy; and how Italians don’t drink white wine. Everything that he said, I absorbed.
It wasn’t long before I got to help set up the wines for Kevin’s wine classes. I felt like I finally had a purpose in life because I was doing something I truly loved. For 10 months, I moved wine boxes and stripped labels and printed circle sheets, but it never really felt like work. I knew if I kept at it, I would eventually get to work closer to Kevin.
After 16 months, I was promoted to Beverage Manager. Kevin called me every week to check on me and make sure the job was bearable. He was always there if I had questions about departmental issues, case discounts, vintage changes, etc. He always gave me an honest answer, and he always made me feel like I had made the decision. Kevin has so many special traits, and one of them is is needlessness for attention or recognition. He always placed the spotlight on me, and made me feel special.
On September 11th, I called Kevin to tell him that our Windows sommelier, Stephen Ribustello, and I were o.k. I also had to tell him that our two assistant cellar masters, Jeffrey Coale and Steve Adams, had been at work that morning. It was the most difficult time of our lives.
A month later, Stephen and I went to Kevin’s house in New Paltz to talk about the future and share a bottle of Bordeaux from his cellar. Seeing him that October morning was more than I could bear. He was thin and pale and looked so shaken and depressed that all I could do was pray that he would recover from this horrible tragedy. We talked about our Windows family and their loved ones and the constant heartache of seeing them in our minds knowing we would not ever see them again on earth. The more we talked, the sadder Kevin became. When we were leaving, Kevin told us he had set up interviews with the Robert Mondavi sales team for Stephen and me so that we would have a job during the holidays. Only one month had passed and Kevin was already taking care of his two wine children. Nothing has touched Stephen or me more than that act of kindness.
Kevin and I speak on the phone once month to share any news or information about our Windows family. In April of 2003, Kevin came to North Carolina to attend my wedding. It was such a special celebration because of his relationships with both the bride and the groom. You see, I married the Windows sommelier, Stephen Rbiustello.
I truly believe I am one of the most fortunate people on earth because of my friendship with Kevin Zraly. Because of my love for grapes, he is an inspiration and a hero. Not just anyone gets to work with the Michael Jordan of wine. For whatever reason, I was able to work with him and I am a better wine professional and a better person because of it. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and September 11th has taught me that more than anything else. Knowing Kevin Zraly is one of life’s blessings, and I am thankful for that golden opportunity. He has given back to the community in so many ways, and he will always be the man who made so many people fall in love with wine while they were falling in love with him.
Slammed Magazine, November 2003